Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are young, in love and engaged to be married. The summer before their wedding, they hire a local guide (Bidzina Gujabidze) to lead them on a backpacking trek through the Georgian mountains. The idyll is interrupted by a momentary misstep that cannot be undone – a gesture that threatens to undo everything the couple believed about each other and themselves. A love story about betrayal, masculinity, failure and the ambiguities of forgiveness.
Engaged couple Alex and Nica set off with a guide on a backpacking trek across the Caucasus Mountains in The Loneliest Planet. What follows is a long, slow and arduous slog for the protagonists and, most likely, the audience.
For long stretches of the film not a lot happens
Russian-born, Brooklyn-based writer/director Julia Loktev’s narrative style is so minimalist and light on for dialogue that many questions are left unanswered, frustratingly. The tension levels rarely reach any great heights over the laboured 113 minutes, and a pivotal scene which threatens to undermine the couple’s relationship is staged unconvincingly. The result is an elliptical, fuzzily-focussed relationships drama about communication (or lack there-of), shattered trust, guilt and reconciliation.
Loktev’s screenplay is based on the 2006 short story Expensive Trips Nowhere by Tom Bissell, which was loosely inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s 1936 short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. She also drew on her experience of backpacking through the region for a week with a boyfriend, who was an ex at journey’s end.
No back story is revealed for Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Nani Furstenberg) beyond the fact that she’s 30 and has travelled a lot and they plan to wed in a few months. As for their jobs, where they live, how and when they met, their outlook on life, even what prompted them to schlepp across Georgia, none of that is explained. Nominally the couple is American although Alex’s background is Spanish, demonstrated when he helps his fiancée conjugate verbs in Spanish.
The preamble establishes the couple’s physical and emotional intimacy. Their middle-aged guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze, in real life a Georgian mountaineer) often is the most talkative of the three.
Dato tells a complicated story about a doctor who carried out mass castrations, engages in a pointless conversation about buying a car, shows Nica tricks with a piece of string and, late in the film, reveals something of his war-torn past and a family tragedy.
For long stretches of the film not a lot happens, despite the director’s attempts to inject an air of foreboding. We are left to gaze at the ruggedly beautiful scenery, superbly captured by director of photography Inti Briones.
After that awkwardly-rendered scene which upsets the couple’s serenity, they lapse into a sullen silence, such that the viewer may be tempted to silently beseech them, 'For God’s sake, say something!’
Alex and Nica trudge along, 10 or 15 metres apart, the camera angles emphasising the physical gap as well as the emotional distance that separates them. Hence the film’s title, a pun on the popular travel guides. Briones alternates between extreme close-ups and wide shots of the characters as dots on the landscape.
The flame-haired, US-born, Israeli-based Furstenberg brings a certain energy and spunk to her character. García Bernal is handicapped by being given minimal dialogue and few chances to express emotions, beyond a dark brooding.
As a non-actor, Gujabidze acquits himself admirably as perhaps the most well-developed of the trio. Yet there are no compelling reasons to care much about what happens to any of them, and the scenery becomes repetitive.
This is Loktev’s second directing effort following the 2006 psychological thriller Day Night Day Night, which chronicled the final hours of a female suicide bomber preparing for an operation in New York’s Times Square. I’ve not seen it but some reviews indicate it too was abstract in mood and often elusive in its meaning.
Better fix that, Julia.